Looking ahead to the Synod, Archbishop Hebda reflects on lessons learned so far

| Archbishop Bernard Hebda | May 7, 2020 | 0 Comments

The stay-at-home order has radically changed our schedules. I terribly miss pastoral contact, but I appreciate having some additional opportunities for personal prayer and reflection. In particular, I have been blessed to have more time to take a deeper dive into the data that was obtained from our pre-Synod Prayer and Listening Events.

I would like to share with you what I have learned and offer a few thoughts on the next critical stage of our Synod process; but first, let me remind you about the Archdiocesan Synod.

A synod is a formal representative assembly designed to help a bishop in his shepherding of the local Church. It is my hope that the process will help to draw on the gifts that have been bestowed in such abundance on the faithful of this archdiocese to discern and establish pastoral priorities in a way that promotes greater unity, and leads us to a more vigorous proclamation of Jesus’ good news. The pre-Synod Prayer and Listening Events held over the past eight months created an opportunity to hear what you thought, to hear the Holy Spirit speak through you. The input was wonderful.

Not surprisingly, with over 8,000 members of this local Church already participating in the process, we have over 2,000 pages of comments. The materials sit on my windowsill as a reminder of God’s goodness, manifested not only in the great number of participants at our Prayer and Listening Events and focus sessions, but also in the generosity of those who stepped up to organize or host those events; those who persevered in transcribing handwritten comments; those who translated the information that came in Spanish, Vietnamese and Polish; those who coded and collated the responses; and those who analyzed and summarized the data, pointing out areas of convergence and divergence.

On top of the pre-Synod data, there is also the information that had been gathered for the report that I presented to Pope Francis at the “ad limina” visit earlier this year, as well as the information that was collected through the Disciple Maker Index designed by the Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI). I was pleased to learn from CLI that you, the generous people of our archdiocese, completed more surveys than any other diocese. The CLI input enables us to glean important insights about the faith life of the various demographics who participated and how parishes assist individuals with their spiritual growth.

It’s a lot to digest. Nonetheless, I have set for myself a deadline of June 29 (one of the feasts of our patron, St. Paul) to complete my discernment and announce, as the next step in this process, the broad focus areas that will shape next year’s deanery and parish consultations, which will in turn prepare us for the Synod itself in 2022. Please pray that I might discern wisely and well. I’m grateful that I am supported in this effort by the Synod executive and prayer teams. I am also counting on good feedback in the month ahead from the members of the Presbyteral Council, one of my key advisory bodies.

What have I already learned?

1. Those who participated drew on their broad experience of Church and have given me a great number of topics that would be worthy of discussion and deliberation at a Synod.

Given the experience and level of engagement of those who participated in the Prayer and Listening Events, it probably should not have been surprising that the comments were comprehensive in addressing areas of growth for our local Church. The written comments reflect thoughtfulness and a desire to make sure that our Church is able to give a credible witness to the joy of the Gospel. At times the comments were very specific and addressed particular areas of interest and expertise, at others the comments were high level and treated issues that are being faced across the country if not across the globe. I was impressed by the insightfulness of the assessments.

2. The setting of focus areas is necessary for the success of the Synod, which means some important topics won’t be treated at the 2022 Synod.

Experts in strategic planning have uniformly told me that the success of our Synod, and ultimately its effect on our Church, will depend on our ability to focus on a limited number of areas. I agree. If we try to do everything, we won’t accomplish anything. I would prefer to see us at the conclusion of the Synod doing a few things well rather than taking on too many ideas and ending up with little or no impact.

We’ve all been presented with the classic query: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! I’m looking to determine where we bite first, trying to identify those topics that are either the most urgent or the most foundational (thereby equipping us to address some of the other topics in the future).

I realize that there will be some who will be disappointed that the topics that they proposed might not be within the initial focus areas presented for our deanery and parish consultations next year. I have been wisely cautioned, however, that I need to be realistic about how much we can bite off and chew at this time, conscious of our human resources and financial resources while being confident that the Lord will provide what we need.

I take some comfort in knowing that there will be other opportunities to address those worthy topics, perhaps even in future synods. I have 15 years before I reach retirement age. My hope in the short run is to develop a culture of collaboration that will be ongoing and that will allow us to respond to pressing issues sequentially. We need to address what we want parishes and the archdiocese to look like in the near future so that we can together tackle important issues effectively in the years to come. That requires a focus on first things first.

3. It seems prudent to focus on areas where there is a realistic hope that our work will be meaningful and present measurable results.

I would wager that few would want to embark on a synod if it’s not going to have consequences that are both real and positive on our life as Catholics in this archdiocese. I need to choose focus areas that will be impactful and that will empower the Synod to be a real tool of governance rather than a mere theoretical exercise.

Among the discussion topics that appeared with some frequency are a few that go beyond the competence of a single diocese or mere archbishop to resolve. Some had called, for example, for consideration of the ordination of women as deacons. Others called for changes in the Roman Missal. While these are topics that could be appropriately discussed at the Synod of Bishops in Rome, decisions on these specific questions at the archdiocesan level could not be concretely implemented, given that these areas are reserved exclusively to the Holy Father.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we won’t be discussing the crucial role of women in our local Church or the importance of the liturgy. It just means that we will be focusing on the portions of those topics over which the Church gives a diocesan bishop competence. We certainly need women who are involved and engaged in the mission of the Church, as well as liturgies that are reverent and meaningful.

4. The focus areas that will be presented for the deanery and parish consultations have to be open to further refinement.

Pope Francis reminds us that synods must be open to the presence of the Holy Spirit. I am hopeful that my efforts to prayerfully discern the appropriate focus areas will both faithfully reflect the data that was gathered and bear fruit for the next phase of discussion. At the same time, I fully expect that the discussion that will take place next year at the deanery and parish levels will refine and focus the topics before they would be presented to the delegates of the 2022 Synod, especially in light of the ways that the pandemic is changing our lives. Those discussions will be important steps before we move to the Synod itself. I sure hope that we will get the same positive response that was so evident at the Prayer and Listening Events.

It seems appropriate, moreover, that we would continue to look for opportunities to receive input from groups that may have been under-represented in our initial consultation. Plans had been underway for a gathering of those who feel that they have been marginalized by the Church, but that was put on hold by the pandemic. I hope that we will still find an opportunity for that input and outreach.

5. The Synod process would benefit from the availability of further catechetical and theological opportunities.

Those who participated in the Prayer and Listening Events will recall that the purpose of the listening portion was simply to receive what was presented, rather than respond to the substance of any particular comment. There wasn’t the time or the opportunity for theological or catechetical discussions.

With the adjustment in the schedule required by the pandemic, it seems that there might now be time for those discussions. I will be exploring with the Catechetical Institute, the seminary and our nearby Catholic universities the possibility of scheduling over the next year: one session on the sources of Catholic teaching (Scripture, tradition and magisterium); another on priesthood (looking at both the priesthood of the baptized and the ordained priesthood); another on the Church’s understanding of the dignity of women; and finally, one on the foundations of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and the family. That could help ensure that we all have a common grounding in the Church’s teaching before we engage in further discussion and deliberation on what it means for us.

6. The success of the Synod will depend on the continued involvement of the faithful.

Seeing the fruits of the Prayer and Listening Events, I feel blessed that we have generous laity, consecrated women and men, and priests who have so much wisdom and good will to offer our Church. The success of the Synod will depend upon efforts to sustain that broad interest, particularly as its trajectory has been lengthened. Please stay tuned for the announcement of the focus areas, and please remember to continue to pray for the fruitfulness of the Synod (and particularly for my work in the next month).

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